Freud and the Future of an Illusion

Sigmund Freud is a historical figure who casts a long shadow. The world of psychology is permeated by the influence of his personality. As an atheist Freud gained recognition for his rejection of religion. Freud admits that many of the criticism he writes about religion could easily be found elsewhere. He merely reflects the mindset of many intellectuals of his age. Where Freud’s force comes is his use psychoanalysis to explain the origin of religion. Like Darwin’s evolution, Freud’s arguments provided atheists with just the scientific evidence they were looking for to confirm their disbelief in God. For this reason he deserves a careful look.

Two of his books about religion that I have just read are Moses and Monotheism (1939) and The Future of an Illusion (1927). Moses and Monotheism usespsychoanalysis to explain how the Jewish people invented monotheism. It is an interesting book to discuss (I am always happy to discuss) but I won’t spent time on it here. Its approach to history and psychology bear a closer similarity to something written by Dan Brown than a scholarly work. The Future of an Illusion holds a much more powerful critique or religion. C.S. Lewis was clearly aware of Freud. Freud makes an appearance in Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress, while That Hideous Strength and Abolition of Man counter many of the arguments that Freud makes in The Future of an Illusion. Well, what of the book itself.

It begins with Freud’s discussion of culture. He says that “it is the principal task of culture, its real raison d’être, to defend us against nature.” According to Freud, deep down men want to sleep with the woman of their choice and kill his rivals. However, if all humanity was free to act on this we would all soon be dead. Culture brings with it prohibitions, like those against adultery and murder, which frustrate our natural desires and ensure survival. Another threat to survival comes from the parts of nature that we have no control over.

Man responded to his helplessness in the face of things like storms and earthquakes by humanizing natural forces. Storms became the result of a capricious weather god like Ba’al in Palestine and Zeus in Greece. “We are perhaps still defenseless, but no longer helplessly paralyzed…we can try to exorcise them, appease them, to bribe them.” While nothing has actually changed we are given the illusion of control over impersonal chaos.

Humans often gave these deities father attributes because of their experiences in childhood. Infants are naturally helpless and on the mother, “the first protection against all undefined and threatening dangers in the outer world.” Soon these feelings are transferred to the “stronger father.” At the same time there is fear of the father because he is seen by the child as a rival to his mother, the Oedipus Complex. When a person grows up he only finds bigger unknowns to fear so “he invests these with the traits of the father-figure, of whom he is afraid, whom he seeks to propitiate, and to whom he nevertheless entrusts the task of protecting him.” This led Freud to view monotheism as a higher form of religion than polytheism because it accumulated the father projection into one all powerful being. Nevertheless, “the the psycho-analytic motivation of the forming of religion turns out to be the infantile contribution to its manifest motivation.”

Freud disliked what he saw as the irrational nature of religious beliefs calling them illusions. “Thus we call a belief an illusion when wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, while disregarding its relations to reality.” For Freud, “scientific work is our only way to the knowledge of external reality.” Therefore, he approaches religion as he would a neurosis in psychoanalysis. Religions developed when humankind was evolutionarily immature, just like a neurosis, OCD for example, develops in childhood. When children fail to outgrow their neuroses in adulthood a psychoanalysis can help by replacing their irrational thoughts with rational ones. Freud sought to do the same with religion.

He proposes a vision of humanity in which we no longer teach children religion when they are young. Freed from the chains of mental slavery humanity can go on and produce “a race of men that has renounced all illusion and has thus become capable of making existence on the earth a tolerable one!” Morality will no longer be based on unexplainable mystery, but reason and science. His book takes on a prophetic air by saying that such a transformation is inevitable as the human species evolves into maturity. “In the long run nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction religion offers to both is only too palpable. Not even the purified religious ideas can escape this fate.” One can cling to the illusion of religion or embrace the coming change.

While Freud’s argument is bold and powerful it is like a brilliant tapestry with lose threads, pull on one and everything quickly falls apart. One of the ironies of Freud’s work is that science has largely rejected psychoanalysis’s description of human psychology. Whatever the merits of psychoanalysis, Freud’s use of it is questionable. I doubt that any psychologist today would be willing to apply individual psychology to human evolution as Freud did with psychoanalysis.

Furthermore, Freud’s use of psychoanalysis resembles a giant mythic serpent that gobbles everything it sees. When it eats everything in sight it proceeds to eat itself. In the book Freud admits that if religion was full of illusion then other cultural institutions like government and marriage could be as well. This is almost an invitation to apply psychoanalysis to Freud’s own views on religion? As C.S. Lewis argued, Freud’s atheism fits the definition of wish fulfillment. He wanted religion to be an illusion and chose to see just the facts that justified his position. Apply his own reasoning and one could say that Freud’s desire to prove God to be an illusion was a manifestation of the sons desire to kill the father.

Freud’s exaltation of reason as the supreme source of knowledge is also flawed. In the words of Alessandro from A Soldier of the Great War, “You can come close to proving the existence of God by reason, but you can’t do it absolutely. That’s because you can’t do anything absolutely by reason. That’s because reason depends on postulates. Postulates defy proof and yet are essential to reason.” Reason rests on a bed of unreason. Freud may think the survival of the human race the logical reason for the prohibition of murder, but why should we survive. Why the entire human race and not the just the fittest? Whether he knows it or not his postulates come from Christianity. Change them slightly and Hitler’s Germany becomes logical. Freud would have benefited from examining and admitting his own unreasoned presuppositions. But, like many people who think they can live purely by reason, it led him to irrationality.

Finally, we have the benefit of living over eighty years after Freud published The Future of Illusion. Religion defined as formal doctrines and dogmas has struggled since Freud’s time. However, religion defined as a way of life associated with a believe in a deity or deities has seen tremendous growth around the world. Europe, where naturalism has most fully permeated the culture, is dying. It is in fact being flooded by immigrants who come from places where religion is strong. If humanity is to evolve out of religion there are no signs of it yet.

One of the things that I admired when reading Freud was that he knew what was important. He was asking all the right questions, but getting all the wrong answers. What man thinks about God is the most important thing about man. He could have ignored the question of God and morality as an atheist, but he decided to wrestle with it and seek an intelligent explanation from his own viewpoint. Freud asked the questions that any intelligent atheist must ask. If there is no God then why does a belief in a God exist? If belief in God is illogical, then why has it persisted to the present day? This drove Freud to naturalistic evolution and it still does today. See Evolution of Religion for an example of this effort.

Another benefit of Freud is as a reminder. Each new generation of Christians tends to think that the assaults on it are new ones. Some fall into despair and have a weaken faith. Others become defensive and combative to the point of doing damage to the faith. Freud thought his critique on religion would be devastating, but Christianity has survived many supposed “death-blows.” Often they are nothing more than the recycled arguments of previous generations, dealt with before by intelligent Christians throughout the centuries. Furthermore, the truth has a way of defending itself. Like cream it rises to the top, especially among an alive and fully human Christianity that is deep intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

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